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This celebrated actor was the son of Peter Garrick, who had a captain's commission in the army, but who generally resided at Lichfield. He was born at Hereford, when his father was on a recruiting party there, and was baptized in the Church of All-Saints, in that city, on February 20, 1716. Young Garrick received part of his education at the grammar school there, but he did not apply himself to his books with much assiduity. He had conceived a very early passion for theatrical representation, from which nothing could turn him aside. When he was a little more than eleven years of age, he formed the project of getting a play acted by young gentlemen and ladies. After he had made some trial of his own and his companions' abilities, and prevailed upon the parents to give their consent, he pitched upon the "Recruiting Officer," for the play. He assembled his little company in a large room, the destined place of representation. There we may suppose our young boy distributed the several characters according to the merits of the performer. He prevailed on one of his sisters to play the part of the chambermaid. Sergeant Kite, a character of busy intrigue and bold humor, he chose for himself.
Garrick as Richard III.
He was frequently in the company of the most eminent actors; he got himself introduced to the managers of the theatres, and tried his talent in the recitation of some particular and favorite portions of plays. Now and then he indulged himself in the practice of mimicry, a talent which, however inferior, is never willingly resigned by him who excels in it. Sometimes he wrote criticisms upon the action and elocution of the players, and published them in the prints. These sudden effusions of his mind generally comprehended judicious observations and shrewd remarks, unmixed with that illiberality which often disgraces the instructions of stage critics.
Garrick's diffidence withheld him from trying his strength at first upon a London theatre. He thought the hazard was too great, and embraced the advantage of commencing his noviciate in acting with a company of players then ready to set out for Ipswich, under the direction of Mr. William Gifford and Mr. Dunstall, in the summer of 1741.
The first effort of his theatrical talents was exerted as Aboan, in the play of "Oroonoko," a part in which his features could not be easily discerned. Under the disguise of a black countenance, he hoped to escape being known, should it be his misfortune not to please. Though Aboan is not a first-rate character, yet the scenes of pathetic persuasion and affecting distress in which that character is involved, will always command the attention of the audience when represented by a judicious actor. Our young player's applause was equal to his most sanguine desires. Under the assumed name of Lyddal, he not only acted a variety of characters in plays, particularly Chamont, in the "Orphan;" Captain Brazen, in the "Recruiting Officer;" and Sir Harry Wildair; but he likewise gave such delight to the audience, that they gratified him with constant and loud proofs of their approbation. The town of Ipswich will long boast of having first seen and encouraged so great a genius as Garrick.
His first appearance as an actor in London, was on October 19, 1741, when he performed the part of Richard III., at the playhouse in Goodman's Fields. His easy and familiar, yet forcible, style in speaking and acting, at first threw the critics into some hesitation concerning the novelty, as well as propriety, of his manner. They had been long accustomed to an elevation of the voice, with a sudden mechanical depression of its tones, calculated to excite admiration, and to intrap applause. To the just modulation of the words, and concurring expression of the features from the genuine works of nature, they had been strangers, at least for some time. But after he had gone through a variety of scenes, in which he gave evident proofs of consummate art and perfect knowledge of character, their doubts were turned into surprise and astonishment, from which they relieved themselves by loud and reiterated applause. They were more especially charmed when the actor, after having thrown aside the hypocrite and politician, assumed the warrior and the hero. When news was brought to Richard that the Duke of Buckingham was taken, Garrick's look and action, when he pronounced the words
"----Off with his head!
So much for Buckingham!"
were so magnificent and important, from his visible enjoyment of the incident, that several loud shouts of approbation proclaimed the triumph of the actor and satisfaction of the audience. Richard's dream before the battle, and his death, were accompanied with the loudest gratulations of applause.
Such was the universal approbation which followed our young actor, that the more established theatres of Drury Lane and Covent Garden were deserted. Garrick drew after him the inhabitants of the most polite parts of the town: Goodman's Fields were full of the splendor of St. James' and Grosvenor Square; the coaches of the nobility filled up the space from Temple Bar to Whitechapel. He had so perfectly convinced the public of his superior accomplishments in acting, that not to admire him would not only have argued an absence of taste, but the grossest stupidity. Those who had seen and been delighted with the most admired of the old actors, confessed that he had excelled the ablest of them in the variety of the exhibitions, and equalled them all in their must applauded characters.
Alexander Pope was persuaded by Lord Orrery to see him in the first dawn of his fame. That great man, who had often seen and admired Betterton, was struck with the propriety and beauty of Mr. Garrick's action; and as a convincing proof that he had a good opinion of his merit, he told Lord Orrery that he was afraid the young man would be spoiled, for he would have no competitor.
Mr. Garrick shone forth like a theatrical Newton; he threw new light on elocution and action; he banished ranting, bombast, and grimace; and restored nature, ease, simplicity, and genuine humor.
In 1742 he entered into stated agreements with Fleetwood, patentee of Drury Lane, for the annual income of #500. His fame continued to increase at the royal theatre, and soon became so extended that a deputation was sent from Ireland, to invite him to act in Dublin during the months of June, July, and August, upon very profitable conditions. These he embraced, and crossed the seas to the metropolis of Ireland in June, 1742, accompanied by Mrs. Woffington.
His success at Dublin exceeded all imagination, though much was expected from him; he was caressed by all ranks of people as a prodigy of theatrical accomplishment. During the hottest days in the year the play-house was crowded with persons of fashion and rank, who were never tired with seeing and applauding the various essays of his skill.
The excessive heat became prejudicial to the frequenters of the theatre; and the epidemical distemper, which seized and carried off great numbers, was nicknamed the Garrick fever. Satisfied with the emoluments arising from the summer campaign, and delighted with the generous encouragement and kind countenance which the nobility and gentry of Ireland had given him, and of which he always spoke in the strongest terms of acknowledgment and gratitude, he set out for London, to renew his labors and to receive the applause of the most critical, as well as most candid, audience in Europe.
Such an actor as Garrick, whose name when announced in the play-bill operated like a charm and drew multitudes to the theatre, of consequence considerably augmented the profits of the patentee. But at the time when all without doors was apparently gay and splendid, and the theatre of Drury Lane seemed to be in the most flourishing condition, by the strange and absurd conduct of the manager the whole fabric was absolutely running into certain destruction.
His behavior brought on a revolt of the principal actors, with Mr. Garrick and Mr. Macklin at their head, and for some time they seceded from the theatre. They endeavored to procure a patent for a new theatre, but without success; and Garrick at length accommodated his dispute with the manager, Mr. Fleetwood, by engaging to play again for a salary of six or seven hundred pounds.
In 1744, Garrick made a second voyage to Dublin, and became joint-manager of the theatre there with Mr. Sheridan. They met with great success; and Garrick returned again to London, in May, 1746, having considerably added to his stock of money. In 1747 he became joint-patentee of Drury Lane Theatre with Mr. Lacy. Mr. Garrick and Mr. Lacy divided the business of the theatre in such a manner as not to encroach upon each other's province. Mr. Lacy took upon himself the care of the wardrobe, the scenes, and the economy of the household; while Garrick regulated the more important business of treating with authors, hiring actors, distributing parts in plays, superintending of rehearsals, etc. Besides the profits accruing from his half-share, he was allowed an income of #500 for his acting, and some particular emoluments for altering plays, farces, etc.
In 1749, Mr. Garrick was married to Mademoiselle Violetti, a young lady who (as Mr. Davies says), to great elegance of form and many polite accomplishments, joined the more amiable virtues of the mind. In 1763, 1764, and 1765, he made a journey to France and Italy, accompanied by Mrs. Garrick, who, from the day of her marriage till the death of her husband, was never separated from him for twenty-four hours. During his stay abroad his company was desired by many foreigners of high birth and great merit. He was sometimes invited to give the company a taste of that art in which he was known so greatly to excel. Such a request he very readily consented to, for indeed his compliance cost him nothing. He could, without the least preparation, transform himself into any character tragic or comic, and seize instantaneously upon any passion of the human mind. He could make a sudden transition from violent rage, and even madness, to the extremes of levity and humor, and go through the whole circle of theatric evolution with the most surprising velocity.
On the death of Mr. Lacy, joint patentee of Drury Lane with Mr. Garrick, in 1773, the whole management of that theatre devolved on Mr. Garrick. But in 1776, being about sixty years of age, he sold his share of the patent, and formed a resolution of quitting the stage. He was, however, determined, before he left the theatre, to give the public proofs of his abilities to delight them as highly as he had ever done in the flower and vigor of his life. To this end he presented them with some of the most capital and trying characters of Shakespeare; with Hamlet, Richard, and Lear, besides other parts which were less fatiguing. Hamlet and Lear were repeated; Richard he acted once only, and by the king's command. His Majesty was much surprised to see him, at an age so advanced, run about the field of battle with so much fire, force, and agility.
He finished his dramatic race with one of his favorite parts, with Felix, in "The Wonder a Woman Keeps a Secret." When the play was ended, Mr. Garrick advanced toward the audience, with much palpitation of mind, and visible emotion in his countenance. No premeditation whatever could prepare him for this affecting scene. He bowed--he paused--the spectators were all attention. After a short struggle of nature, he recovered from the shock he had felt, and addressed his auditors in the following words:
"Ladies and Gentlemen: It has been customary with persons under my circumstances to address you in a farewell epilogue. I had the same intention, and turned my thoughts that way; but indeed, I found myself then as incapable of writing such an epilogue, as I should be now of speaking it.
"The jingle of rhyme and the language of fiction would but ill suit my present feelings. This is to me a very awful moment; it is no less than parting forever with those from whom I have received the greatest kindness and favors, and upon the spot where that kindness and those favors were enjoyed." [Here he was unable to proceed till he was relieved by a shower of tears.]
"Whatever may be the changes of my future life, the deepest impression of your kindness will always remain here" (putting his hand on his breast) "fixed and unalterable. I will very readily agree to my successors having more skill and ability for their station than I have; but I defy them all to take more sincere, and more uninterrupted pains for your favor, or to be more truly sensible of it, than is your humble servant."
After a profound obeisance, he retired, amid the tears and acclamations of a most crowded and brilliant audience.
He died on Wednesday morning, January 20, 1779, at eight o'clock, without a groan. The disease was pronounced to be a palsy in the kidneys. On Monday, February 1st, the body of David Garrick was conveyed from his own house in the Adelphi, and most magnificently interred in Westminster Abbey, under the monument of his beloved Shakespeare. He was attended to the grave by persons of the first rank; by men illustrious for genius, and famous for science; by those who loved him living, and lamented his death.
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